The space shuttle Endeavour took off from its launch pad in Florida Wednesday, bringing a new U.S. and Russian crew to the international space station. It is the fifth crew since the station was first inhabited a-year-and-half ago. Each of the shuttle and station teams has its own set of supply and construction tasks to accomplish during Endeavour's eight-day visit.
The Endeavour mission is an especially busy one and longer than the typical stay at the space station. "We've got one of those missions that has almost too much in it to get done," said shuttle commander Ken Cockrell. "We've got a tremendous amount of work to do while we're docked to the international space station.
The work includes exchanging station crews, three spacewalks for construction and maintenance, and the transfer of tons of cargo and scientific experiments for the new station team to use.
Deputy station program manager Bill Gerstenmaier says the activities are typical of those to come over the next several years. "This flight really exemplifies what the station is all about," he said. "It's got research, international cooperation, assembly, maintenance both inside and outside the station. This is the type of flight we're going to have in the future for the station and this is the way we're going."
The station crew exchange is the main goal of the shuttle mission. Veteran Russian cosmonaut Valery Korzun and two space novices, astronaut Peggy Whitson and cosmonaut Sergei Treschev-will take up residence on the outpost until October.
They replace astronauts Dan Bursch and Carl Walz and their Russian commander, Yuri Onufrienko, who have orbited since December. They were supposed to return earlier, but the U.S. space agency NASA extended the training for Endeavour's crew because of the addition of a new job just one month ago. They must now conduct a spacewalk to replace a faulty joint on the station's robot arm.
This has put the three station crewmen several days beyond the 180 day limit that NASA sets for station crews because of physical deterioration in near weightless conditions.
But Mr. Gerstenmaier says the delay was necessary because the mechanical arm repair is critical for future station assembly operations. "The arm is really the critical component here. All the next components and series of components require use of the arm," he said.
The robot arm, which is now fixed on the station, eventually will be placed on the outpost's mobile rail car to extend its reach. This requires a special platform that astronauts will mount on the railcar during another of this mission's spacewalks.
Peggy Whitson and Sergei Treschev are not the only space novices flying up on the shuttle. Two members of the Endeavour crew are also making their first flights to orbit, including French astronaut Philippe Perrin. Endeavour commander Cockrell jokes that the inexperienced fliers always make good entertainment in weightlessness.
"It's going to be fun from that aspect. It's always fun to watch the rookies flail a little bit when they get to orbit," he said.
But Peggy Whitson is no novice when it comes to the research experiments she will conduct aboard the station. She will be the first person with a scientific doctoral degree on the outpost. She is also the first without a military background.
What is unusual is that her first assignment, and that of cosmonaut Treschev, is not on a relatively short shuttle flight but on a long station mission. Despite her lack of flight experience, Ms. Whitson says she is not bringing along a good luck charm. Instead, she is putting her faith in Commander Valery Korzun, a veteran of the Russian Mir space station and a harrowing fire that he helped extinguish on it five years ago.
"The biggest good luck charm we're bringing along is Valery," she said. "We figure he can handle anything!"